In Erin Callahan’s The Art of Escaping, escapology is defined as the art of breaking free from locks, chains, straitjackets and water tanks along with dodging sharp arrows aimed at your heart. For some teens, there’s no better metaphor for high school.
For 17-year-old Mattie, it isn’t a metaphor. The summer before her senior year, Mattie convinces Miyu Miyake, the reclusive adult daughter of a famous Japanese escape artist, to teach her the practice made famous by Harry Houdini and Dorothy Dietrich. All summer long, Miyu instructs Mattie in how to pick locks, how to hold her breath underwater and how to conquer her fear of the spotlight. But while Mattie is bending hairpins and training in ponds, she is also learning how to be herself. With her best (and only) friend, Stella, away at nerd camp, Mattie soon finds herself in an unexpected friendship with fellow misfit Will, who, unlike Mattie, doesn’t outwardly seem like a misfit at all.
Both Mattie and Will—and later Frankie, a third friend who joins their wayward band—love the sights, sounds and even textures of the 1920s, and their story is peppered with the slang of the era, jazz music, vintage dresses and speak-easies populated by bohemian audiences. Yet even as these historical references are celebrated and romanticized, they’re simultaneously critiqued as Mattie enrolls in a history class designed to question the nature of how history is discussed. In the end, metaphor blends with reality, text blends with interpretation, and Mattie, Will and those around them just might escape from the restraints that are holding them back from being their true selves.